It is not common for a country the size of Maine to dominate international headlines for months with a single issue. Hungary has been in the spotlight for well over a year now because of its pugnacious government’s repeated efforts to oust the Central European University (CEU) -claiming the institution does not fulfil legal requirements. One must not forget, however, that new legal measures were tailor-made against the CEU from the very beginning, while it was the Hungarian government which eventually failed to hold up its end of the bargain. The hardships endured by the institution under the increasingly authoritarian rule of Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán are well-documented and have raised many eyebrows across the world. Yet few would have anticipated that Orbán will be able to follow through with his plan, evicting the university amidst a loud international pro-CEU campaign powered by renowned academics, civil organisations, and at first some of his own political allies.
Worst-case scenario was realized on Monday, when the CEU announced that it would launch all U.S.-accredited degree programs in Vienna from September 2019, leaving Budapest after 25 years of harmonious cooperation. Some 80% of newly enrolled students will now begin their studies in Vienna while teachers and staff will have to move or commute daily to the Austrian capital – and this is just the tip of the iceberg. With the CEU forced out of Hungary, Budapest loses much more than human capital, significant research funds or a quality institution of higher education. In a country where critical voices are muffled, opposition newspapers are shut down, and where the state serves only a selected few, CEU provided an independent platform for open debate and free speech. Now we must learn the hard way that self-proclaimed illiberals are political terrorists without a penchant for crisis negotiation – if you are not with us, you are against us. But the university’s decision to move is understandable as much as it is regrettable. A prestigious institution that operates in a highly competitive international environment simply cannot allow itself to function in continuous uncertainty fuelled by vicious smear-campaigns and propaganda.
Orbán, whose political agenda builds on perpetual and often entirely artificial confrontation, emerges victorious from yet another battle that once seemed too risky to start. He did not vanquish the CEU, though. On the losing end we find the European People’s Party with its entire leadership who fell for Orbán’s elaborate peacock dance and lost their credibility as guardians of European values overnight. In a spectacular act of betrayal, EPP group leader Manfred Weber – the man who eyes the most influential EU position after 2019 – essentially sacrificed rule of law and democracy at the altar of short-term political gain, which is hardly the best strategy if you are preparing to run an institution that is supposed to defend those very principles. The EPP’s so-called “red lines” (i.e. not pursuing NGOs and the CEU) have been repeatedly crossed without any consequence or repercussion that might urge the Hungarian government to reconsider its plans. It is not surprising that political observes began to wonder whether Orbán represents the real face of the EPP, acting as the puppet master who abuses the hypocrisy of his peers in the biggest European party without them even noticing.
Rather uncharacteristically, even the USA acted like a toothless giant, failing to defend an American university under attack in an EU member state that is also a close NATO-ally. The initial charm offensive by David B. Cornstein, U.S. Ambassador to Hungary yielded no results, so the diplomat appeared to give up on the CEU entirely, stating that the case has “nothing to do with academic freedom” and refusing to criticise Orbán. While the State Department issued half-hearted press statements about their “disappointment” over the ejection of the university, the Hungarian government’s propaganda-machinery was in full swing claiming that the CEU’s decision to move is “nothing more than a Soros-style political bluff, which does not merit the attention of the government”. By turning a blind eye, Hungary’s allies failed to demonstrate commitment to universal democratic principles, thus empowering a corrupt populist who runs a country in the heart of Europe like his family business. And just like that, the region’s best university is gone, and the hope that any international actor is capable of stopping a fragile democracy’s backslide into autocracy is gone with it.
member of the European Parliament, Head of the Hungarian S&D-delegation